Joe Gibbs Racing’s week of media attention ends with Denny Hamlin in victory lane at New Hampshire. Ex-points leader Kyle Larson bounces back from penalties to finish second.
The first half of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season was something Joe Gibbs Racing wanted to forget, going winless after winning 12 races in 2016. Denny Hamlin made sure that all changed Sunday, snapping his team’s winless streak after taking the checkered flag at the Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire.
Hamlin held of a hard charging Kyle Larson for his 30th career victory, his first since Richmond last September. Hamlin led 54 laps, including the last 34.
After the race, Hamlin celebrated with an epic burnout and high-fived his entire No. 11 FedEx Toyota pit crew for a job well done.
In an interview, Hamlin said he had to pace himself to hold off Larson and getting by lapped traffic.
“Kyle had a very fast car and it seemed like we were able to come off the corner pretty good and really just ran kind of a pace there which I felt comfortable with and just in case we had to restart, I didn’t want to burn the tires up,” Hamlin said. “I’m proud of this whole team. Backup car and it put us behind the 8-ball but it’s cool to win one like this.”
Hamlin said the team has shown improvement after a disappointing first half of the season.
“It’s definitely been tough but it’s not from a lack of trying,” Hamlin said. “We’ve been getting better every week. As far as I’m concerned, I think we should race here 10 times a year.”
Hamlin said the victory was a team effort after Hamlin crashed during Friday’s practice, forcing the team to pull out a backup car.
“We definitely needed a win for the organization and for myself to get some momentum going,” Hamlin said. “I can’t say enough about this race team. It’s a team effort and for them to do the extra work to get us the engine change before qualifying Friday was key and that pays off.”
Hamlin’s team dominated NASCAR’s headlines all week including Tuesday’s announcement of Furniture Row Racing driver Erik Jones will replace 45-year-old Matt Kenseth in 2018.
In a pre-race interview, car owner Joe Gibbs said the decision was made as a team and felt it had to be made to keep the team afloat in the future.
“This wound up being a team decision,” Gibbs said. “Obviously me owning the team, it was to me to make those decisions. We didn’t want to this and it wasn’t the right timing for us. It’s just a lot of things played into it, where we had to make a decision.”
Gibbs said he had plans bringing up Jones to his Cup team but cited Carl Edwards’ retirement as one of the reasons why the change had to be made, resulting Kenseth being the odd man out and now NASCAR’s top free agent.
“We make plans as a race team and spent years planning what we wanted and we wound up in a place we didn’t want to be,” Gibbs said. “Carl comes in and said, ‘I want to retire.’ That changes a lot with our race team. There’s many other things that came up that changes the plan we had laid out and didn’t expect to be here. As a consequence, none of us wanted to do anything that would discourage Matt and his beautiful family. Our guys don’t want to race against Matt and we think now we are going to racing against him.”
Gibbs added his focus will be on helping Kenseth finish on a high note and become the third driver (Bobby Allison and Lee Petty) to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship at age 45.
“We think Matt can win a championship in our car,” Gibbs said. “He was very close last year but a couple of last lap circumstances kind of took him out of that. Our whole focus right now for him is to give him a chance to win a championship. That will be the best thing for us and best for him.”
Kenseth muscled his way to a fourth-place finish and led four laps.
Kenseth also extended his points gap from 17th place Joey Logano from seven to 52 after Logano finished 37th, the last car running at the finish.
Jones crashed out early and finished 39th for his fifth DNF of the season, derailing his chances of making the playoffs via points and winning Rookie of the Year over Gibbs teammate Daniel Suarez.
Suarez remained consistent all day and finished sixth in his first Cup trip at Loudon. It’s Suarez’s fifth top-10 of 2017 and equaled his best career finish set at Dover in June.
Kyle Busch once again was snake bit from capturing his first win of the season after two speeding penalties eliminated him from the hunt.
Bush was the only Gibbs entrant to finish outside the top 10, finishing 12th after winning stage two.
For the 15th time this season, Truex, Jr. won a stage after crossing the line first in stage one.
Truex, Jr. was the car to beat, leading a race-high 137 laps until a flat tire forced him to make an emergency pit stop, giving the lead to Kenseth.
The flat tire derailed his chances of his fourth win of the season and settled for a third-place effort.
Truex, Jr. said not only the last restart didn’t help his chances of regaining lost ground but the loss of VHT (additional traction to make for better racing) contributed to struggling at the end.
“Restarting third was not the best place to be. I’d like to have restarted fourth where Denny did. Obviously, that’s where you want to be but at the same time I don’t think our car was quite as good those last two runs,” Truex, Jr. said. “VHT kind of wore off the track quite a bit there at the end, probably the last 100 laps and we lost our advantage. The first 200 (laps) we were stout but once we got that flat tire, I don’t know if we knocked some cooling off the right front but it just would build tight and I couldn’t run with the leaders.”
Truex, Jr. said pitting late had its benefits and setbacks especially after Ryan Newman spun entering turn two to bring out the last caution on lap 263.
“Tires mean a lot here now and we were looking good there for a while. Then Matt ran us down and passed us like we were standing still on much fresher tires,” Truex, Jr. said. “We were actually lucky to get the caution and get to pit with everyone and come out on equal grounds and tried to race but it just didn’t have it at the end.”
With the stage and playoff point, Truex, Jr. retained his 38 points lead over Larson.
Larson had two penalties in a span of a week that cost him both his points lead and pole position.
Larson’s points lead was taken away after an illegal rear brake cooling assembly was found in his No. 42 Target Chevrolet after the race at Kentucky, resulting a three-race suspension for crew chief Chad Johnston and a 35-point penalty.
Truex, Jr. became the new points leader as a result.
Larson was the fastest qualifier Friday but his time was disallowed after his car failed post-qualifying inspection, giving Truex, Jr. the pole.
Despite those penalties, Larson rallied from the back to his seventh second place finish of the season.
In a post-race conference, Larson said NASCAR has kept an eye on his Chip Ganassi Racing team throughout the weekend.
“NASCAR has kept a closer eye on our team,” Larson said. “What was going on with our shark fin wasn’t anything different than any other teams tinker with. Just trying to maximize their aero performance in their cars. We just got in trouble for it and had to go to the back. I don’t think it really affected us which was a good thing.”
Larson added the penalties hasn’t affected the team’s performance thus far.
“The little stuff we got in trouble for so far hasn’t seemed to affect the performance,” Larson said. We just got to keep working on the areas on our race car that are legal and find more speed.”
The Cup drivers head to prestigious Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the annual Brickyard 400 July 23.
Busch has won the last two races at Indy in convincing fashion. It’s also the sight of his last Cup victory, 35 races ago.